Etna’s Outsiders

Producers on Mount Etna climb to greater heights with vigor and determination

Excerpted from the Oct. 31, 2018, issue

Three outsiders lit the fuse on the explosion of wine production from Etna: Belgian Frank Cornelissen; Marco de Grazia, an American who grew up in Florence; and Roman Andrea Franchetti. In a remarkable piece of synchronicity, the three men purchased vineyards on Etna in 2000, ultimately establishing wineries within a 10-minute drive of one another, as well as making wine and espousing philosophy that would help to bring production from Etna to the forefront.

Cornelissen was a former wine salesman turned novice winemaker when he stepped into his role as tenacious protagonist for both the natural-wine movement and wines from Etna. Cornelissen’s early attempts yielded some inconsistency—extreme highs and extreme lows—but he quickly gained a following for his distinctive bottlings that expressed the rich volcanic character of the mountain’s soils. Today, with a more practiced hand in the vineyard and cellar, as well as a less dogmatic approach to the “natural” mantra, his wines are just as exciting, in my opinion, and probably more so for their greater reliability. A fine and relatively affordable example is one of Cornelissen’s introductory reds: The Etna Munjebel 2016 (93, $45) is beautifully aromatic and minerally, a pure Nerello Mascalese that offers volume without excessive weight.

Prior to establishing his Tenuta delle Terre Nere winery on Etna, de Grazia found success in the late 1980s and 1990s importing an outstanding portfolio of boutique Italian wineries to the United States (the business is still active and thriving). His role as company head was not just that of a businessman working with the wineries to sell their wines, but also that of an advisor, advocate, educator and more. He readily applied this multitier approach to his own wines at Terre Nere—and to those of Etna as a whole. Tagging Etna the “Burgundy of the Mediterranean,” the winemaker in de Grazia recognized the ability of his vineyards to convey site-specificity and terroir. Meanwhile, the businessman in him perceived the opportunities to promote these distinctions and to raise awareness of Etna as an emerging region for quality wine.

“Immediately I saw the difference between here and there,” de Grazia explained to me in 2014 while we toured his vineyards. “And so I put the name of the vineyard on the label … It caught on [with others], but the important thing is that the qualitative drive was behind it.”

Using the vineyards’ contrade names (the local term for historic crus that delineate the Etna DOC; plural of contrada) on the Terre Nere labels helped to give personality and identity to the winery’s individual cuvées. At the same time, it started a conversation about greater definition within the larger Etna DOC—the first DOC established in Sicily, in 1968. Today, it includes 2,300 acres of vineyards. A 2011 decree from the Italian government recognized the sub-zones defined by the historic contrade boundaries, not only allowing de Grazia and others to legally include cru names on their labels, but also laying the groundwork for future winemakers to further define and evaluate Etna’s complex terroir.

Today, de Grazia’s vineyards produce better and better results, with two whites and all seven of his 2016 reds rating 90 points or higher.

His efforts yielded the two top-scoring wines of this report, both at 95 points. The Etna Prephylloxera La Vigna di Don Peppino 2016 ($105) comes from two parcels of 130-year-old vines located directly in front of the winery in the stony Calderara Sottana cru. The wine is silky and seamless, with a lovely array of ripe fruit, exotic spice, mineral and almond blossom. The Etna San Lorenzo 2016 ($60) is sourced from almost 10 acres of vineyards in the San Lorenzo contrada, which sits at about 2,400 feet of elevation; it boasts bold flavor and structure deftly knit into a graceful and harmonious package.

Andrea Franchetti of Passopisciaro is an artistic soul from a prominent family in Rome. He had already put a remote part of southern Tuscany, the Val d’Orcia, on the map, with his successful Tenuta di Trinoro estate. Used to managing vines in Tuscany’s heat, Franchetti saw the opportunity to contrast grape maturation on the vine in the cooler temperatures provided by the mountain’s higher altitudes.

Passopisciaro encompasses more than 60 acres of vineyards spread among five different contrade. Six of the winery’s bottlings are 100 percent Nerello Mascalese, which Franchetti prefers to harvest via multiple passes through the vineyards, often extending harvest into early November, an extreme for the area. Among the contrade bottlings, the Terre Siciliane Contrada P 2015 (94, $80), from 3.7 acres of vines in the Porcaria vineyard, stands out for its robust tannins and mouthwatering acidity layered with expressive black fruit, floral and tarry mineral notes.

Franchetti was one of the first producers to follow de Grazia’s example, labeling many of his wines with the name of the contrada from which the grapes are sourced. (Today he abbreviates the contrada name to just its first letter.) He embraced the concept even further in 2008 when he created and hosted the first Le Contrade dell’Etna. The wine fair, now held annually, helped to draw early attention to Etna’s wines, and continues to do so each April as it brings journalists, sommeliers and wine aficionados to the mountain’s vineyards.

Senior editor Alison Napjus is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on the wines of Sicily.